Cholesterol lowering medications (also known as statins) are widely used to reduce the risk of heart disease. However, there has been ongoing public concern that, based on isolated reports, statins may be associated with memory loss.
However, new research that evaluated the cognitive effects of statins in older people has revealed there is no such negative impact and, in fact, there are potential protective effects of statins for those at risk of dementia.
The research, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, assessed more than 1,000 individuals aged between 70 and 90, over a six-year period.
Led by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research and the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at the University of NSW Sydney, the research team measured five areas of cognition, using 13 different tests and brain volumes using MRI scans.
After taking into account factors that may contribute to memory loss such as age, obesity, past stroke and genetic susceptibility to Alzheimer’s disease, the team found there were no significant differences in memory or cognitive decline between individuals who had ever used statins and those who had never used a statin medication. There was also no difference in the change in brain volumes between the two groups.
However, the researchers found that in individuals with risk factors for dementia, including heart disease and carriage of the ApoE4 gene, statin use was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline over the six-year period, when compared to those with the same risk factors who did not take a statin medication.
Furthermore, individuals diagnosed with diabetes who had ever used statins showed a slower rate of decline in brain volume compared to non-statin users. These benefits may be due to the ability of cholesterol lowering medications to manage cardiovascular risk, which, in turn, protects against dementia.
In the researcher’s media release, Professor Katherine Samaras, Head of the Clinical Obesity, Nutrition and Adipose Biology lab at the Garvan Institute and endocrinologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, said many factors can contribute to the cognitive symptoms that isolated case reports describe, and up to half the individuals prescribed statins do not fill their prescriptions largely due to concerns that their memories may be affected.
“What we’ve come away with from this study is a reassurance for consumers to feel more confident about their statin prescription,” Professor Samaras said.
Although there are some study limitations to consider due to the observational nature of the research, the findings provide added evidence that statins do not adversely affect brain health.